William Empson begins his critical essay on John Donne's "A Valediction: of Weeping" with the statement below. Empson here plays the provocateur for the critic who wishes to disagree with the notion that Donne's intentions were perhaps less than the sincere valediction of a weeping man. Indeed, "A Valediction" concerns a parting; Donne is going to sea and is leaving his nameless, loved other in England, and the "Valediction" is his emotive poesy describing the moment.
"...the language of [A Valediction: of Weeping] is shot through with a suspicion which for once he is too delicate or too preoccupied to state unambiguously, that when he is gone she will be unfaithful to him. Those critics who say the poem is sincere, by the way... know not what they do." --- William Empson, "A Valediction: of Weeping," John Donne: a Collection of Critical Essays (ed. H. Gardner)
There is little argument as to what Donne is feeling at surface level: he is sorrowful and grieving because he must be apart from his loved one, who has become his world (a metaphor which is carried out in the second stanza). Empson is indeed correct when he says that the poem is not unambiguous. There is a large range of interpretations that can be made based upon the language in the poem, and these are focused around the source of Donne's grief.
It is easy for one to picture a grieving sailor leaving his lover, but what makes this man grieve? It is the innate love between two people who are intensely focused upon each other which must be put on hold? Is it some additive emotion that consists of two people who are about to suffer separation and loss of a lover? Or is it, as Empson p...
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..., Donne and his lover/other struggle with their sadness just before separation. Donne realizes that this may be a futile goal, but he also sees the importance of composure if their relationship - his "world" - that he credits to her is going succeed. Donne seems to have no dearth of sincerity in this poem. He is also purposeful in writing it; Donne himself was a man of great passion, and who had to go out to sea. "A Valediction: of Weeping" seems not to be the valediction of a jealous lover, but of a conscientious other making a concerted effort not to let jealousy and self-pity control his farewell to a lover.
Donne, John. "A Valediction: Of Weeping". The Longman Anthology of British Literature: Volume 1A. 2nd ed. Ed. Damrosch, David, Christopher Baswell and Anne Howland Schotter. New York: Addison-Wesley Educational Publishers, Inc, 2003.
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